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French Canada and the War

ISSUE:  Summer 1940

During the last Great War, Canada came to the very verge of civil strife between its French and its English peoples. Yet when Canada entered that war, it was, to all appearances, a united nation; it was not until the fall of 1915 that the first signs of schism appeared. In comparison, the circumstances under which Canada entered the present European war are ominous: from the very first days the French minority had demonstrated its opposition to participation.

The problem of minorities has played a large part in shaping the recent history of Europe. The problem of the French minority in Canada—a heritage from the time of the European domination of America—is bound to play a similarly large role in determining the future of the Dominion. Its potentialities do not stop at the international boundary line: the degree of Canada’s participation in the war, her future relations with the British Empire and with the United States, the fate of democracy on the North American continent—all these are bound to be seriously affected by what happens in French Canada.

Many years ago Andre Siegfried described the relationship between the French and the English in Canada as “a marriage of convenience without cordiality.” We might add that while at times the two peoples have lived together on tolerably peaceful terms, and while there have even been brief displays of genuine amity, there have been several occasions when their domestic unity came within an ace of disruption. History records at least eight major quarrels since the time of the British conquest, four of which have taken place since the turn of this century. The French-Canadians vehemently opposed participation in the Boer War, partly because they sympathized with the cause of the Uitlanders, partly because they felt that the quarrel was no concern of theirs. In 1912 they drove the Laurier Government from office because it proposed the establishment of a Canadian auxiliary to the British navy. In 1915, tempers on both sides were again brought to white heat by the dispute over the French schools in Ontario. Already sorely strained by these and other conflicts, the tenuous bond of national unity broke beneath the additional stress placed upon it by the war. The French-Canadians refused to enlist for “British imperialism” ; they opposed conscription with street demonstrations, riots, and barricade fighting; and they finally compelled the Canadian Government to suspend application of the National Service Act in the province of Quebec.

Almost up to the outbreak of the present war, authoritative opinion was generally agreed that the hostility of Quebec would prevent Canada from participating in another European conflict. The likelihood of such participation was already lessened by Canada’s economic evolution. In contrast with the situation in 1914, when British capital held first place in Canada, Canada today is far more intimately associated with the United States. The United States has provided almost two-thirds of the foreign capital invested in Canada and has absorbed three-fifths of the Canadian capital invested abroad; in recent years it has taken two-fifths of Canada’s total exports and has supplied her with three-fifths of her imports. These statistics were inevitably reflected in a strengthened trend towards North American isolation. As late as March 1939, Premier King intimated that Canada’s interests were in America and not in Europe.

But as the battle lines began to take shape, the Government was compelled to modify its stand. British diplomacy had at last fallen in line with American opinion; there were definite indications that if it should come to war with Germany, Britain would have the sympathy, and conceivably the active support, of the United States. Certain French papers have frankly depicted Canadian participation in the war as a prelude to American entry, and not without basis. There are men of influence in both Canada and the United States who feel that a Europe dominated by Germany would be an immediate menace to the Americas; the Allies, for their part, are banking heavily on the growth of this idea. There can be no doubt that pressure was brought to bear on Canada not only for the purpose of inducing her to enter, but also in the hope that Canadian involvement would help to influence a reluctant American people and would ultimately ease the way for American entry.

Public opinion at home also played a part in forcing Canada’s entry—thereby demonstrating that tradition does not yield automatically to trade statistics. Pro-British sentiment in Ontario and other provinces was quick to assert itself; the Ontario Legislature, to give but one example, anticipated the war by voting unanimously for the support of Britain and for the conscription of Canada’s man power and wealth. But the French-Canadians remained adamantly opposed to participation in Britain’s wars. Caught between the fires of British patriotism and French-Canadian nationalism, Premier King attempted, on the one hand, to placate the former with his declaration of war and, on the other hand, to placate the latter with the assurance that the Government did not intend to send an expeditionary force, and that it under no circumstances contemplated the introduction of conscription.

It is a tribute to the wisdom of this duplicity that it succeeded in holding the country together. But hardly had Canada entered the war on the basis of limited “belligerency” when it was announced that one division was to be sent overseas. A short while later the expeditionary force was increased by another division. And though the Government still proclaims its unyielding opposition to conscription, the most sober section of Canadian editorial opinion already points out that war is war—and that military exigencies may compel the Government to introduce compulsory service even against its own will.

The importance of dealing tactfully with French-Canadians was scarcely appreciated by some of Premier King’s imperialist opponents, who continued to clamor for conscription. The French-Canadians are undoubtedly the strongest, the most homogeneous and the most significant minority in the Western hemisphere. In Canada they constitute fully a third of the population, the bulk of which—almost two and one-half million—is concentrated in Quebec. So great is their rate of increase that it is estimated that they will outnumber the English by the year 1971. Procreating prodigiously, they have overflowed into Ontario and New Brunswick, where they are now represented by large minorities. Elsewhere in Canada they are dispersed in important enclaves. In the New England states there are, in addition, almost two million French-Canadians who are still bound by sentiment to their motherland. The racial stock of the French-Canadians is unusually pure—it is estimated that almost eighty per cent of the original habitants came from old Normandy. They are also united by the compelling ties of language and religion. And, as if all these were not enough, they are united by a more subtle, yet even more powerful bond—the feeling that they are being persecuted as a people.

The French-Canadians have never forgotten—nor have they been permitted to forget—that they are a vanquished people. In their schools they are taught the story of the conquest, the woes of their ancestors are relived in their history lessons. They are told the tragedy of the expulsion of the Acadians, immortalized by Longfellow in “Evangeline.” They learn how the English conquerors took everything for themselves—natural resources, commerce, the liquor trade, Government contracts, the civil service. The little canadiens are impregnated with the spirit of their people’s struggle for survival and they come out of school hating those whom the vernacular calls les anglas almost as their mortal enemies. The present circumstances of the canadiens only serve to fortify their nationalism. Looking about them today, they see the wealth of their land monopolized by strangers, their language rights denied in Canada’s other provinces, and their people treated with contumely by the English interlopers.

The justness of these historical grievances is freely admitted by many English-Canadians. On the other hand, there are British apologists who disclaim all responsibility for the present poverty and backwardness of French-Canadian society. Their charge is that the Catholic Church is responsible. There is an indisputable measure of truth to this contention: the Catholic Church in Quebec disposes of such tremendous power that it must accept responsibility for Quebec’s shortcomings as well as the credit for its achievements. It controls the school system, supervises the trade unions, monopolizes public charity, and sponsors innumerable social auxiliaries for men and women, boys and girls. From cradle to grave it orders the lives of the French-Canadians. It disposes of enormous material wealth and enjoys exceptional privileges such as tax-exemption, large grants from the provincial government, and the legal power to collect tithes, which enjoy priority even over municipal taxes.

The poverty of education in Quebec is traditional. The material poverty of the people is equally traditional. In the sphere of qualitative achievement, Quebec’s record is equally dismal. A national culture cannot be nurtured in a vacuum. Having shut its people off from the culture of both Protestant America and free-thinking France, the Church finds them cultureless—and wonders why. Cardinal Vil-leneuve bitterly complains that the number of outstanding French-Canadians can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

All these things are true. But our British apologists forget two things: the French-Canadians were relegated to the position of helots after the conquest, and their relative poverty today is largely attributable to this original economic handicap; furthermore, the power of the Catholic Church in Quebec is a direct result of British policy. Astute observers like Andre Siegfried have been quick to remark that the Church has been an essential instrument of British domination. Accommodating itself instantly to the change of rule, the Church admonished the habitants to submit to the regime of their English conquerors. In return for its allegiance it received concessions which ultimately established it as the dominant social force in the province.

In the post-World War years, the nationalist movement subsided considerably. The ravages of the economic crisis, however, brought about a virulent resurgence.

The requirements of the canadien are not great. As long as the habitant could make a humble living for himself and could place his sons on the land or find jobs for them in the city, he was content. But during the crisis there were few jobs to be had in the cities, while the land began to groan under the burden of debt and poverty. When the French-Canadian sought a reason for his plight, the first thing that struck him was the economic superiority of the English and Jewish minorities. The French-Canadian merchant found himself forced out of business by the English department stores and chain stores. The habitant farmer found himself mulcted by English banks and insurance companies. The French-Canadian worker became more keenly aware of the fact that his boss and his foreman were English.

In the factory towns of Quebec, nationalist sentiment is particularly strong. Wage standards are abysmally low, but this is not the basic reason: for that matter, French-Canadian manufacturers are certainly no more generous than their English competitors. It is in the social composition of industry that the key to the situation is to be found. In the United States it has been the general rule for labor to follow industry; the establishment of a new industry would attract workers from far and wide—workers of different nationalities, different religions, and different colors. To such deracines there is nothing abnormal about an arrangement where there are bosses and workers. But the French-Canadians are not deracines. The factory towns of Quebec recruit their labor supply from their immediate vicinity. With rare exceptions, the workers are French-Canadian, Catholic, and what is most important, the descendants of many generations of local residents. On the other hand, with equally rare exceptions, the capitalists, managers, engineers, technicians, and foremen are all Anglo-Canadians or Americans whose residence in the district dates at the most from the establishment of the particular industry. The French-Canadians occupy the working class district of the town; the English live by themselves in the residential district. To a proud and spirited people like the French-Canadians, nothing could be more galling.

An entire literature has grown up around the theme of the exploitation of the French-Canadian people. Olivar Asselin, in a brochure published in 1926, produced figures to prove that the French-Canadians, who constituted more than two-sevenths of the population, disposed of only one-seventh of the wealth. Victor Barbeau has published a survey of Canadian industry entitled “La Mesure de notre taille.” In it he finds that of the thirty-one richest mines, twelve are owned by Anglo-Canadians and nineteen by Americans. The 497 mining companies listed employed a grand total of seven French-Canadian engineers. A similar situation is found in the other industries surveyed.

In a sense the nationalism of the masses is an anti-capitalist sentiment: the trustards (trust-owners) are English-Canadians, the workers are French-Canadian. The clerical and political leaders of the nationalist movement pay tribute to this sentiment by attacking the trustards. Their propaganda, however, is strikingly reminiscent of the anti-capitalist demagoguery of the European Fascists: they are, for example, unanimous in their praise of corporatism, their hatred of the Jews, and their contempt for democracy.

So far the economic program of the leaders of the French-Canadians consists of little more than fulminations against les anglas. None of them has yet explained how the French-Canadians are to reconquer their national heritage. Many nationalists believe that their people would make a much better showing if education were secularized and if stress were placed upon engineering and business instead of on theology, the classics, and the traditional professions of medicine and law; but despite the growing volume of criticism, the Church retains undisputed control over the educational system. There is a large sentiment in favor of nationalizing the hated power trust and other public utilities, but the Government of Duplessis did not even attempt to implement its promises in this regard. The Achat Chez Nous movement (Buy from French-Canadians) has also figured prominently in nationalist strategy. I quote from LAction Paroissiale of the parish of Notre Dame du Perpetuel Secours: “While the sons of Israel, jolly and fat, rub their hands with glee as they anticipate the handsome profit of which your candor gives promise, and while the descendant of proud Albion consults his bank book and treats us as ‘crazy people,’ I see our own merchant disturbed and in great anxiety, calculating the chances of success which remain to him.” But, despite the fact that L’Achat Chez Nous has been endorsed by the St. Jean-Baptiste Society and by the Catholic Syndicates, the poverty-stricken French-Canadian still continues to shop where he can buy most cheaply. The one marked effect that the propaganda has had has been to antagonize the English and Jewish merchants.

The Church has encouraged the new nationalism for reasons of its own. The growth of the cities has brought the French-Canadians into contact with such influences as Protestantism, liberalism, international trade unions, and Hollywood movies; there can be no doubt but that the hold of religion is weakening under the impact of these influences. No longer able to protect itself behind the physical barrier of rural isolation, the Church is striving to reinforce the ideological barrier of nationalism. The padlock law and anti-labor legislation introduced by Duplessis under hierarchical inspiration are still on the books, but the Liberal Government displays no anxiety to enforce them. The flood of “foreign” influence still continues to rise. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Church has turned towards the corporate state as the sole solution for its social problems; certain clerics have, in addition, expressed the fear that unless Quebec achieves independence so that it can insulate its people behind national boundaries, French-Canadian society is doomed to disintegrate.


It was a reluctant Canadian Government that signed the declaration of war against Germany on September 9; indeed, it is reliably reported that it would have liked to remain neutral, but that it finally succumbed to irresistible pressure. The Government can scarcely be blamed for its reluctance, for with the declaration of war, Canada’s internal situation immediately assumed critical proportions.

In Quebec, the intimation that Canada would enter the war was greeted by a storm of indignation that completely drowned out the few protests of patriotism. Turbulent meetings were held at which, according to the report of the Montreal Gazette, shouts were heard of “Long live the revolution!” “We want the heads of King and Lapointe!” “Down with the English!” The rural press was almost unanimous in its opposition: La Frontiere of Rouyn, important mining town, screamed “Nous ne partirons pas!” (we will not march!) in its front page headline; the organ of the hierarchy, L’Action Catholique, which had called upon French-Canadians to enlist in the Great War, gave much prominence to the protest movement; La Presse of Montreal, biggest paper in the province, displayed an uneasy neutrality; Le Jour, most liberal and pro-English paper in the province, felt constrained to condition its support of the war with rejection of conscription. In the Parliament, Maxime Raymond, Member for Beauharnois-Laprairie, tabled a petition against participation with 100,000 signatures appended. The St. Jean-Baptiste Society, the National Catholic Unions, the Jeunesse Ouvriere Catholique, and other organizations added their protests. There were protests, too, from mass meetings, from rural municipal councils at Sorel, St. Barthele-mey, Broughton East, St. Prime, and from chambers of commerce.

One might expect the French-Canadians to be influenced by a love for France, or at least by the fear that Nazi Germany and Communist Russia—both countries of religious persecution—would conquer Europe. But the Church has taught the French-Canadians to hate anti-clerical France and has quarantined French culture in its Index, so that today there is only the slenderest of attachments to the mother country. Nationalist orators deny that it is a war for Christianity, for democracy, or for Polish independence. According to them what is involved is a struggle between British, French, and German imperialism. They point out that it was with Britain’s help that Germany achieved its present position, and that when the monster that Britain had created turned on her, she did not hesitate to seek an alliance with atheistic Russia. They strike a particularly responsive chord when they point out that the Canadian Government, which was not able to find funds to provide work for the unemployed, has no difficulty in finding funds to provide them j with rifles.

But if the French-Canadians are really against war, how can we explain the outcome of the election of October 25? The answer is simple: the French-Canadians voted not for war but against war.

The Government of ex-Premier Maurice Duplessis came to power in 1936 on the basis of a program of “FrenchCanada for the French-Canadians.” But like many another buster who, in opposition, became intoxicated with his own ambition, Duplessis found that state power, once obtained, can have a mighty sobering effect. Instead of dictating to the trusts and banks, Duplessis was constrained to dicker with them. And so it was not very long before all the talk about “French Canada for French-Canadians” was forgotten. In his efforts to appease big business, Duplessis introduced labor legislation which cut a wide swath in the traditional rights of trade unions. Even the ultra-conservative Catholic Syndicates were antagonized by his labor policies.

It was Duplessis’s misfortune that he took office in what is socially the most backward province in Canada and at a time when it was still feeling the ravages of the depression. The expenditures which he made may have gone for worthy and demanding causes; the difficulty was that there were too many of them. Spending money at more than twice the rate of annual revenue, Duplessis succeeded in increasing the provincial debt from $150,000,000 to $315,000,000 during his term of office. Taxes began to rise and taxpayers began to grumble.

Then the war came along, and Duplessis grabbed at the situation like a drowning man at a straw. But in calling the election two years before his term of office expired, Duplessis failed to reckon with several factors. The most important of these was the entry of the Federal Government into the fray. Lapointe, Cardin, and Powers, the French Ministers in the King Cabinet, not only stumped the province on behalf of the Liberals: they staked their political future on the outcome of the elections by pledging their resignation if Duplessis were victorious. It was their intervention more than anything else that was responsible for the Liberal victory.

Duplessis had pinned much hope on the bogey of conscription, but here the Liberals met him with his own weapons and more than bested him. The Union Nationale was able to point out that in 1914 the Government had promised that there would not be conscription and had subsequently gone back on its word; that King, Lapointe, and Cardin had promised that Canada would not again participate in a European war, and had gone back on their word; that T. E. Crerar, at present representing Canada in London, was a member of the Union Cabinet that imposed conscription in 1917. Cardin and Lapointe, on the other hand, pointed to the part they had played in the anti-conscription struggle of 1917 and they asked Duplessis where he had been at the time. Conscription, they said, was a matter that would be decided by the Federal Government. If the Union Nationale were victorious, Lapointe, Cardin, and Powers would be compelled to resign. This would inevitably result in the formation of a union government, pro-imperialist in personnel . . . and then would come conscription. Logic was on their side.

By no stretch of a sober imagination can the outcome of the election be considered an endorsement of the war. The people voted against Duplessis in part because they were fed up with his regime, in greater part because they felt that Lapointe and Co. could more effectively protect them against conscription than could Duplessis. In the new Government, the Union Nationale has fifteen seats, and the Liberals have sixty-nine. Submitted to a simple analysis, the vote gives a vastly different impression. The Liberals received fifty-two per cent of the total votes, the Union Nationale forty per cent, the Action Liberale Nationale five per cent, and independents the balance. The bulk of the English vote-roughly twenty per cent of the total—went to the Liberals. Together the Union Nationale and the Action Liberale Nationale had the support of at least half of the French population. The vote in the case of all three parties was a vote against conscription. Those who cast their ballot for Duplessis and Gouin did so with the implicit understanding that it was a vote against participation, and in the face of hints that the election of Duplessis might conceivably result in civil war. To those guileless imperialists who chose to interpret the election of the Liberals as an endorsement of the war, it came as a distinct shock when, some three months later, Premier Godbout warned the Federal Government to ease up on recruiting in Quebec.

What will happen in Quebec is still a matter for conjecture. Among other things, it depends on just how far Canada finally does become involved in the war. This, in turn, depends upon the sentiment of English-speaking Canada. There are already many indications that the French-Canadians are not alone in their opposition to participation. In the Federal Parliament, James Woodsworth, leader of the C.C.F. (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation) took a stand against entry—although in this he was not supported by his colleagues. In the British Columbia Legislature, Mrs. Steeves of the C.C.F. called forth a stern rebuke from Premier Patullo when she denounced the war as an imperialist war. In Ontario, sixty-five ministers of the United Church of Canada issued a statement in which they blamed both sides for the war and regretted their inability to support the Allies. All this is scarcely surprising. During the World War the Canadians of British birth enlisted far more heavily than did those of British descent; the former, in fact, supplied almost fifty-five per cent of Canada’s armed forces. Today the number of British-born Canadians is considerably smaller and the rest of English Canada is one more generation removed from the motherland.

French-Canadian nationalism is so amorphous and complex a thing, it is so contradictory in many of its aspects, that a definite prediction as to its future is impossible. Within the limits of the movement there are autonomists and separatists, clerics and anti-clericals, Fascists, corporatists of some twenty different varieties—and even a handful of anti-Fascists. Most ominous of all the organizations, although they are not receiving much publicity at the present time, are the Jeunesse Ouvriere Catholique (J.O.C.) and the Parti de L’Unite Nationale (Fascist) headed by Adrien Arcand. The J.O.C. has some 40,000 members who receive regular drill, submit to discipline, and know how to act in a body. Though its leaders generally insist that it is primarily a Y.M.C.A. affair, Archbishop Gauthier of Montreal has on occasions openly espoused their drilling as a necessary defense against Communism. Arcand’s party makes no bones about its quasi-military preparations. Though it is small and though it has been compelled to function covertly since the war, it has the sympathy of a large section of the Catholic Church and of many people influential in provincial and Federal politics.

Although the problem is not one which affords an easy solution, the situation is far from hopeless. There is nothing in the temperament of the English- and French-Canadians which would make reconciliation impossible; there are men of culture among both people who have bridged the gulf of popular prejudice and who get along on the most amicable terms. Secularized education, compulsory school attendance, uniform text books, an improved school system—all these would be of aid in attenuating the hostility between French and English. But until the economic gap that exists between them is bridged and until other grievances are adjusted, there can be no real peace.

The French-Canadians are not a demanding people. They ask no more than to be permitted to live their lives as they see fit. Those who know the French-Canadians will tell you that nowhere in the world will you find a more generous hospitality than you will meet with in rural Quebec. If they are impoverished and backward, it is no fault of theirs. And if they have not learned to love Great Britain, there is perhaps some reason. Though some of their grievances may be exaggerated or imaginary, many of them are unquestionably real. It is a tragedy that, just as in Europe, those who call themselves Liberals should ignore minority grievances while the Fascists are permitted to exploit them for their own ends. In Canada it is doubly tragic because Fascism would bring the French-Canadians not emancipation but new slavery.


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